Anatomy on film: the imaginary archive

Frame from Circulatory System (1924)
Frame from Sarnoff's Circulatory System (1924)

A lot of my research is on medical filmmaking: films that physicians and other medical professionals made for each other. It turns out that there are a lot of these. Doctors have been making movies since the invention of the medium.

I’m fascinated by a strain of thought that recurs frequently in discussions of anatomical films. Here’s an example from 1919:

The films of the Surgeon General’s Library will be available to teachers in the army and medical schools and the profession, just as the books in the Surgeon General’s Library are for study and reference.¹

Here’s another example, this one from 1961:

Patients, especially those suffering from rare conditions, are seldom available when required, but a library of case histories enables the lecturer to have suitable cases to hand.²

Again and again, when physicians make films, they describe themselves as creating a definitive “library” or an “archive” of the human body. Future physicians, they say, will simply pull a canister off a shelf, just as they now turn to a page in an atlas.

Title page of Sarnoff's atlas
Title page of the text companion to Sarnoff's atlas, published in 1927

Perhaps the best example of this tendency is Jacob Sarnoff, a New York-based plastic surgeon who created The Human Body in Motion Pictures, a six-reel anatomical atlas of the human body, between 1920 and 1927. Soon thereafter, Sarnoff got to work on his System of General Surgery in Motion Pictures, which eventually became a “library” of 200 film reels, designed to comprise “a clinical textbook of surgery.”³

But Sarnoff’s films never became a definitive atlas, and neither did anyone else’s. The films of the “Surgeon General’s Library,” now the National Library of Medicine, are historical curiosities, not “clinical textbooks.”

What is it about the human body on film that resists absorption into an archive or atlas?

Loraine Daston and Peter Galison say that atlases are a special kind of thing: they’re “dictionaries of the sciences of the eye.”

Atlases aim to be definitive in every sense of the term: they set the standards of a science in word, image, and deed — how to describe, how to depict, how to see.⁴

Yet despite these definitive aspirations, most atlases, including those of Sarnoff and his colleagues, have a surprisingly short shelf life. Our ideas of what constitutes the “definitive” record of the body’s inner time and space — its representation on film — seem to change too quickly for an archive to capture.

Or perhaps it’s because images of the body’s interior are, as Scott Curtis puts it, “temporal and ephemeral, hard to read and difficult to grasp.”⁵

How interesting that something as “universal” as the body’s moving interior seems to elude definitive representation.

¹ R.T. Taylor, “Remarks on Methods of Teaching Medicine and Surgery by the Cinematograph,” New York Medical Journal 109 (February 8, 1919): 232-233.

² Peter N. Cardew, “Medical Cinematography,” in Medical Photography in Practice, ed. E.F. Linssen (London: Fountain Press, 1961), 83-123.

³ Jacob Sarnoff, “Teaching Surgery with the Aid of Motion Pictures,” Medical Economics, February 1933.

⁴  Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 22 and 27.

⁵ Scott Curtis, “Still/Moving: Digital Imaging and Medical Hermeneutics,” in Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Cultures, ed. Lauren Rabinowitz and Abraham Geil (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 226.

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